Schedule 1 — Local retention of non-domestic rates
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North, Labour)
Thank you. I so declare, so that people do not think it is my wife’s individual management that has led to the improvements. She shares my anxieties about the cuts that the fire brigade faces there.
I am by no means against reforming the way in which local authorities and central Government work together to collect and distribute tax, or the various mechanisms put in place to protect the system, but I recognise that the current system has its flaws. It is vital that the systematic inequalities in the country are addressed. The provisions suggested by the amendments do that. The Bill fails to recognise the simple fact that different councils must be provided with different levels of resource to meet different needs in order to prevent any form of postcode lottery, which would otherwise exist in the provision of services.
The amendments put a clear requirement—not “may”, but “must”—on the Secretary of State to take specific actions to ensure that all councils are provided with clear regulations within which they must work, and the Government as well, and allows councils the specific right to challenge. New clause 2 provides a comprehensive safety net for local councils which find, as others have described, that a major redevelopment scheme results in a substantial loss of non-domestic rate income for a period exceeding one year. Without specific powers—it is so important that they are specific—and requirements for the Secretary of State to intervene, I fear that
countless councils, including those in north-east England, could be left high and dry and unable to continue to provide the range and depths of services required by our communities.
It is no good the Secretary of State having a series of discretionary powers in this area. He must be able to intervene to avoid wide-scale financial hardship which would leave local authorities no option but to slash services. Councils’ differing ability to generate business rates must be taken into account. Many local areas with vulnerable economies require support and Government investment in their infrastructure if they are to grow, particularly in the north-east, where the investment and growth that took place as a result of the positive intervention by the Labour Government are being reversed. The need for councils’ differing ability to be taken into account is recognised by the Tory-led Local Government Association, which strongly advocates the incorporation of safeguards to help authorities that raise relatively low amounts of business rates.
No one would disagree that there is substantially greater need in the north-east because of pressures on local services and smaller commercial and business areas. For example, in my Stockton North constituency there are several times more children on free school meals than in Wokingham, and our local authority faces around double the cost of providing residential and nursing care. Despite the diversification of the north-east economy under the Labour Government and considerable action on health and poverty, which saw the gap in life expectancy narrow, sadly the region still has about 33% of its population living in the most deprived areas of England.
Unemployment is also disproportionately impacting on the north-east, standing at 11.7%, compared to a national average of 8.4%. In my constituency, the local government finance settlement has already determined that Stockton council will receive £77 million in the current financial year. That is a 12% reduction on 2010-11 and higher than the average English reduction of 11.1%. Going forward, the 2012-13 settlement is to fall further by 8.8%, compared to 8.2% across England, so we need the safeguards proposed in the amendments.
Such a significant reduction in income means that councils such as my own in Stockton would no longer be able to provide the same level of public services in their area by charging a similar rate of council tax. They would inevitably have to make deeper cuts in their budgets, thereby putting greater pressure on the delivery of the most essential local services, exacerbating the inequalities that unfortunately plague this country and are worsening under the coalition Government. It should be emphasised that the previous Government made significant gains in bridging the equalities gap in Britain. The north-east especially benefited from a proactive Labour Government, determined to improve the prospects for the whole country.
Based on gross value added per head indices, the rate of growth in the north-east went from being the lowest of the regions during the 1990s to being the second highest during the past decade. Employment growth between the mid-1990s and the 2008 economic downturn increased by 11.2%, compared to 9.2% nationally. Despite the common view that the north-east had become over-reliant on the public sector at the expense of the private sector, between 2003 and 2008 private sector employment
rose by 9.2%, whereas public sector employment grew by only 4.1% during the same period. Between 1999 and 2007 the number of north-east businesses rose by 18.7%, just a fraction below London’s business growth of 19.6% for the same period. What a testament to the work of our regional development agency and local authorities in the north-east.
Unfortunately, that hard work is being overturned by a reckless coalition Government, and we need the Bill to address that. One of the Government’s first actions was to abolish One North East, our regional development agency, and the regional Ministers, who had played an important role working with the private sector on large-scale investment programmes. The net effect has been a two-thirds cut to regional development funding and the establishment of a much smaller national fund to which every region must compete for investment.